Morning Walks, Days of Summer

From the playing fields of Manuel High School the view was screened to a faint suggestion of mountains for days in July. I looked it up. “Dateline Denver: haze caused by fires out west.” The headline exasperated me: I thought I was out west.

Looking through my digital Denver Post, I found a page four article about fires in the State of Washington. Like all positions, what’s “out west” is a matter of perspective. I think of Washington as forever raining, but not this summer. Four hundred square miles of land, over 100 homes, had been incinerated in dry, windy conditions, the worst ever recorded there. We’ve had many such shattered records lately.

Here in Denver’s Whittier neighborhood, I try to walk before it gets hot, with young couples pushing strollers, jogging with their dogs. It’s Wednesday morning, after eight. I guess no one goes to work early anymore. These young people are mysterious to me. I don’t know how they make a living, what impels them to pay so much for old houses realtors couldn’t give away twenty years ago.

I pass a couple, her pregnant belly straining tautly against her t-shirt, his tattoos elaborating his arms, their boxer beside them. Thirty years ago, this neighborhood was peppered with black and Latino children. Then for a long time, there were few children. Now we’ll have a bumper crop again, tow-haired babies this time. Such are the changes you see if you stay in one place long enough.

Coming up behind a blond boy of five or six, sauntering slowly with his slow spaniel, I call hello, not to scare him. “What a sweet puppy,” I say. “She’s not a puppy,” he corrects earnestly. “She’s old, but,” and I hear his parents explaining, “she’s very active for an old dog.”

This will be his first death, I think, moving on. When the cat I had at his age died, I was thirteen, sobbed and sobbed. Even now, the memory of finding my cat stretched out under the porch, cold, is vivid in my mind. And yet, that vision’s sadness has worn to a wafer, its recollection now a gateway to smiling: that cat woke me to feed him in the morning, purring loudly against my cheek. And if I didn’t stir soon enough, I’d get a gentle bite on the nose. Pets are often the first to teach us about death, about loss. However it comes to us, it’s a knowledge we need to acquire.

Crossing Manual’s parking lot late in July, I was startled to see the cheerleaders on the football field. A dozen girls with their energetic young teacher—bless young teachers who take on these extra tasks!—worked through stretches, squats, high kicks. If the cheerleaders have begun their early morning practice, football players can’t be far behind, and it must be only weeks until…

A moment of panic tightened my gut, the attack I experienced for the start of every school year, the panic teachers suffer. This is my fifth year retired, but I’ve agreed to teach a class this fall. That’s all it took for the feeling to return, the feeling that summer’s slipping away, life is slipping away. I started writing this in July and now it’s August. August!

For a week of July mornings, the Front Range was made dim by the residue of forests, ashy bits of bedrooms. Generated by trees, family photos, melted laptops, a wisp of favorite sweater, that smoke touched us here. Losses we’ll never to able to name waft through our air. Change we cannot control washes around us like a flood, some of it causing us to clap happily, some of it dismaying.

On this August morning walk, a representative of the new life passed me, a grinning young father with a baby strapped to his chest and two rescue greyhounds on leash. I observed that he had his hands full.

“Yes,” he replied proudly. “I do.”

The day was beginning to heat up, and heading home, I saw a bright yellow and black swallowtail butterfly flitting through red hollyhocks.

Posted in Neighborhood | 6 Comments

These children are ours

I can’t do much about the legion dire situations in the world. I’m often not sure what the right thing to do would be. My husband says the best idea is to assume an Islamic attitude when disasters strike, say, “God is great,” and keep on. But these children at the border are on my doorstep, brought here in large part because of our own doing. And some Americans are already taking right actions about it.

Recent history: We blocked drug trade from Columbia, which moved it to primarily Mexican drug cartels, who, while giving Mexico plenty of grief, have also set up shop in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. These countries have weak governments and much poverty, ideal breeding grounds for drug dealers. What we do in the world has unintended consequences. You’d think we’d know that by now.

Need I mention the U.S. market is the main client drug cartels exist to supply? Or that our role in destabilizing those countries governments has been suspect for decades? Today Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have some of the highest murder and poverty rates in the world. Drug people come into schools and tell 10-year-old children, “you work for us or you die, you take these drugs or you die, you deliver these drugs or we kill your sister.”

The law George W. Bush signed, the Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, says any child from a country not adjacent to the United States—that is, not Mexico or Canada—who appears at the border unaccompanied must be given an immigration hearing. It was a well-intended law, aimed at stopping sex trafficking. But life has gone from bad to worse in Central America since then. Down there, rumor has it that the law means if you’re a minor and get across the border they can’t send you back. You’ll be safe. You’ll have a chance to have a life. Two things you can’t have in the place where you were born.

These children are refugees, fleeing extreme violence and poverty. Over a third are hoping to reunite with family members who came here before them. To get this far, they’ve spent every cent they had or borrowed, endured beatings, attacks, lack of food and water, the risk of enslavement and death. All to reach a place where there might be hope. To be met by people screaming at them.

As Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick reminded us recently, in 1939, to our everlasting shame, we turned away a ship with 1,000 Jews on board, many women and children. It is estimated that over half the people on that ship died in the Holocaust. I will not be party to the repetition of such an act. Sending these children back is sending them into the hands of drug lords.

Our pathetic politicians are making political footballs of juveniles. But grassroots America has risen to the occasion as decent Americans always do. They make me proud. They’re doing the right thing.

I’m giving what I can to these groups. I hope you will too. I hope you’ll pass this on. Here are some of the organizations helping. Add others if you know more. Pass it on.

Texas Young Democrats: they have a basic necessities wish list on Amazon. Their website has information: http://www.texasyds.com/

Catholic Charities of Central Texas is currently seeking donations to help with immigration legal services and family support service for these children. See the website for more information: http://ccctx.org/ils/unaccompaniedminors/

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) has an up-to-date website focused on this border crisis with the latest news about it and solicits cash donations: http://www.supportkind.org/en/

Posted in Education | 2 Comments

Shock Therapy

Washington Post headline: “For most people, electric shocks beat time alone.” (July 4, 2014) Happy Independence Day, America.

Conducted by University of Virginia psychologists, the study intended to see what happens when we just sit and let our minds wander. They had a theory that mind wandering might lead to increased creativity or something. They didn’t anticipate that people would have trouble with the task. But people did. It was difficult, they said. Devoted members of the heads-down tribe, they cheated and thumbed their cell phones.

I wonder if this is another of those introvert/extrovert splits? (See my previous blog on the topic, “The Great Divide,” May 27, 2014) The researchers should have checked participants for their Myers-Briggs results. Introvert that I am, sitting around letting my mind wander is what I do best.

Look, I’m doing it right now. Staring at my computer screen, listening to birds outside my window. That poor fellow’s been trying so hard to woo her, and she just flies away. I start making up a love triangle story about sparrows that involves extensive personification. I could do this kind of thing for hours. Look, Ma, no cell phone!

But study participants said it was too hard. So the staff tried to make it easier, gave people time to prepare what they might think about, gave them assignments: plan a vacation, for example. No go. They couldn’t stick it out. It was unpleasant, made them uncomfortable.

We must have been talking about a major amount of time in isolation with your own thoughts, right? A week, maybe? A day? Three or four hours?

None of the above. Six to fifteen minutes.

People couldn’t stand being alone with themselves for one quarter of an hour. So the researchers wondered, being the perverse people researchers are: was it so difficult that they’d prefer negative stimulation? They gave participants a device that would give them a mild electric shock if they pressed a button. Not expecting many would shock themselves voluntarily, of course.

But people did. Left alone in a room to keep their own counsel for fifteen minutes, people shocked themselves an average of seven times. Once every two minutes.

Here’s my theory.

Scenario 1: Female. You’re alone in a room with your thoughts, and you start out, OK, how about that dream vacation. We could go to Bali. That’s an exotic tropical paradise. We’d be on the beach—I’ve got to lose twenty pounds, how am I going to—Zap! I’ll shock myself instead.

More men shocked themselves than women. Why does that sound right to me?

Scenario 2: Male. Geez, I’m alone in this room. No TV? No TV. There’s nothing to do here. Supposed to plan a vacation, but, hell, the wife does that. There’s a game on, isn’t there? No TV. I’m falling asleep. Better shock myself. Zap! Wow, I’m pretty tough. That didn’t bother me at all. Let’s try again. Zap!

The women surprised me, though. Women may not be more introverted or self-reliant than men, but they do have busier minds. I figured a woman could keep herself going for fifteen minutes just with the closet re-organizing she needs to do and correcting her husband. I can hear her: “Sweetie, I do wish you wouldn’t leave gobs of toothpaste in the sink.” Hard to believe, but apparently those things weren’t enough.

Scenario 3: Female O.K. Bali’s out, in fact all beaches are out until I lose this weight, so what about Paris? We’ll get one of those direct overnights, stay where we can see the Eiffel Tower—and—your mother wants to come? Look, I’ve never told you this before, but your mother— Zap!

See, the mind is dangerous. Most of us really don’t want to let the thing off-leash. A friend told me she and her husband were going on a cruise, showed me the agenda, a day-by-day program packed with activities and tours. It made me tired looking at it. I observed that there wasn’t much down time.

“Oh, no,” she answered breezily. “I need to be busy. If I’m not, I start thinking.”

God forbid.

I kinda want one. One of those mild shock devices. You know, like for now, sitting at the computer alone in my room, supposed to be writing a blog, but thinking, I really should get back to yoga class and stop eating ice cream. Did I lock the front door? Zap! I shock myself and start hitting those computer keys. In theory.

Posted in Humor | 8 Comments

Classrooms Memories, Mostly with Food

from Spanish

Language classes traditionally have food days, justified by their “exposure to culture” standard. I have them twice annually, require describing food en español before eating, which makes for motivated learners.

“Blake, please don’t throw the tortillas,” I admonished. Who would’ve thought I’d need to say such a thing in life, let alone in class? Always on guard for breaches like flying tortillas, I say it calmly, secretly admiring how the corn missile twirled neatly from Blake’s hand to the boy’s across the room, a golden frisbee the receiver instantly dipped into his chile verde and ate. (2000)

*

These are arts students, so when we learn restaurant dialogue, it must be acted out with props, costumes, no notes in hand. “It has to be elaborate,” one student explained. Today Leigh performed a skit in which she convincingly became a three-year-old who wanted chocolate, not sopa de pollo. Several in the audience sighed, “oh poor thing,” so that Dan, exasperated, exclaimed: “it’s Leigh; it’s not a real baby.” (2001)

from Creative Writing

The old man, my neighbor’s sub today, ratchets slowly up the stairs, coffee mug in hand. I should tell him about the elevator, it’s not easy to find, but am in the midst of retrieving handouts from the printer and meeting with students, don’t remember him again until I return to the hall and find Cierra and Sarah down on their knees with the old man and paper towels, mopping up a large quantity of spilled coffee. He braces himself to rise, one hand on the banister, the other on his knee, muttering in cranky embarrassment that more paper towels are needed. Quick as sparrows, the girls dart down the hall, across the bridge, returning in a flash with white feathers fluttering from their hands.

‘I spilled—they’re helping,” he informs me.

These are my angels, the ones I must recall on the days I want to slap them silly, for those days will come. These are my cherubs, who restore faith. (2008)

*

Brendan J, adept open mic MC; Grace and Madison’s Pokemon performance with friends who shriek and applaud; Franklin’s rocking bilingual piece on being Mexican; Emily B’s passage from wheelchair to mic, walking with only light aid at her elbow while Brendan C spikes the applause and keeps them applauding til she arrives; sixth grader Jesse reading with his cap on sideways while his Mom, easel on stage, draws the taco he’s eulogizing. I arrived at 6:45 a.m.; now it’s 9:30 at night and I can’t count the trips I’ve made up the stairs from Commons to classroom and back. Waiting for Omnia’s parents outside the darkened school, everyone else gone, is respite: easy talk of future plans in cool night air. Driving home at ten, I think how loving and supportive these kids are with each other, how well they ran the show tonight, pitched in to bring, serve, clean up a spaghetti dinner, set up and decorate, fold and stack tables. This is how it should be—all I had to do was open doors. (2009)

*

It’s writer appreciation day and someone brought Oreos. (We get snacks for writer appreciation.) My middle school students listen quietly, some neatly stacking their Oreos, others carefully balancing them on end, three or four separating them, licking the white icing off, before eating the cookie: reverent, silent engagement with ritualized eating while the words of the story flow from page to page. (2010)

*

It’s cold and cloudy for the weekly middle school walk. Ben holds his blue umbrella over his head, pointlessly. “That is the point,” he says, unruffled. We cross the Johnson & Wales campus, ignore semi-hostile stares of college students. Yellow leaves drop willfully, no excuse of a breeze. “Look,” says Kristina, “Cha Cha doesn’t have the answer to the meaning of life but suggests you follow your heart.” Mikayla and Indy came coatless, but insist they’re fine, some macho girl thing. The same lonely cat as last week trots from its yard meowing and half the class pauses to pet it. Come, come, we have six blocks to go. I have snatches of conversation: those flying cave monkeys in your story, this running into trees thing should stop, those untied shoes and breaking your neck. I’m told the twigs in Tessa’s hat make a statement—that her head is wooden, I presume—and we’ve introduced ourselves to Izzy, who was sick for five days so we can’t remember her. “I’m Bob,” Nate tells her, “and,” gesturing toward Evan, “this is Bill.” Noses sniffing, cheeks flushed, we tumble back into the warm room and our screens bloom for silent writing after the walk, the vital balance between movement and stillness achieved. I need say nothing, they all fall to, keys clicking, screens filling with words in a hush that lasts and lasts and Cha Cha may not know the meaning of life, but for this moment we might. (2007)

Posted in Education, Memoir | 6 Comments